Petrov’s Skoda – realpolitix or mythica?

From Cain - Wreck + caption

As the story unfolds, so the plot thickens. As it should in any melodrama.

From Cain - P with ASIO agent + caption

The “real story” of Petrov’s accident on the Cooma road at dawn on Christmas Eve, 1953, is a truly unlikely tale according to the myriad of sources now available to your iconophiliac. The police records, ASIO records, the numerous subsequent publications, plus the memories of local residents, are the very stuff of myth. All we need is an icon!

On 23rd April 1954 the Canberra Times rewrote the events of Christamas Eve as a “murder attempt” – probably the source of the mythology that persists in the public memory to this day. And published a photograph of the wreck the next day. Apart from the fact that it was the Christmas holidays, and that most of the police and ASIO officials were on leave when the accident occurred, the “official” accounts of what actually caused the accident, and what happened to Petrov subsequently, are as various as they are entertaining.

Frank Cain, in his ASIO: An Unofficial History (1994) gives a rollicking account of Petrov as a rather incompetent Walter Mittyesque figure, who was lured into in whisky smuggling and bawdy incidents in Kings Cross by ASIO counter-agents. On the story of the accident, Cain relates that Petrov was driving south “on a secret assignation” with a Madame Ollier, of the French Embassy. A colourful figure herself. In this version of events, after the crash, battered and bruised, he left the car, Petrov hitched a lift to Cooma, and then caught the train back to Canberra. No evidence of the truck which is said to have run him off the road was ever found.

On the evidence of the Royal Commission which followed his defection, Cain concludes that he was unlikely to have been a spy-master of any kind. The Royal Commission on Espionage, it is widely recognised, was as influential in Menzies’ re-election and Evatt’s political downfall as the visit of Her Royal Majesty in February and March 1954. Realpolitics in action. To set the scene (a Royal theme), here is Royalla today…

Royalla_668

Senior Constable W.J. Osborne’s report relates that Petrov had “collided with a red vehicle” (surely that’s a giveaway: what other colour truck would the MVD drive?), and that he then “returned to Canberra on a train from Royalla”.

report detail

Mysteriously the accident is reported by ASIO as being “approximately 2 miles past the Royala (sic) siding” whereas local accounts place the event about half a kilometer to the north.

Petrov_map_668

The secretive map of the incident site bears no relation to the topography of the area or to the actual path of the roadway, which ran parallel to the railway line for miles in either direction. No railway is shown on the map.

Other Police reports (recorded on the 4th January) describe Petrov as “a great hunter” who was traveling south to Cooma on a fishing expedition.

report2668

These different accounts from the Police and ASIO variously report him having returned home on the first train north (from Royalla Siding), while others relate how he hitched a lift to Cooma for his rendez-vous with Madame Ollier, keeping his return rail ticket as evidence when he subsequently defected. Others relate that he was in such a shaken state as to be unavailable for subsequent interview, as evidenced by the extensive bruising to the diplomatic buttocks. One wonders what else the MVD did to him when he returned home to the embassy sans Skoda.

report3668

In The Petrov Affair: Politics and Espionage (1987) Robert Manne wrote that Petrov knew he had been lucky to escape with his life. “He claimed he had been forced off the road by a truck, and not unnaturally given his present state of mind, wondered whether his Soviet colleagues were behind some attempt on his life. Inside the Soviet embassy he received little sympathy. Petrov had never renewed the insurance policy on the Skoda. Generalov demanded he pay for a replacement with his own money. When he eventually emerged from the Soviet embassy to speak to the Canberra police about the accident, he misled them on a number of points, at least partly because he wished to conceal from the the purpose of his trip to Cooma – a conspiratorial rendezvous with Madame Ollier of the French embassy. Only an unusually heavy evening in Sydney… to bring in the New Year could temporarily mask his growing despair.”

So where did the wreck of Petrov’s Skoda end up? John Goodall, who lives just downhill from the site in the old Royalla Post Office and phone exchange, which was run by his grandmother Gladys (“Gladdie”) Burke (nee Goodall) at the time of the accident, is the only person we met who knew anything about the event. From his house about a kilometer away, he pointed to the location on the hillside where he remembers the wreck of the Skoda had been laid to rest. Where is it now? According to John, it was brutally “buried by redneck road builders” when the road was moved 100m to the west in 1991. So there you are. On John’s authority, ever since 1991 you have passed over the ghost of Petrov’s Skoda as you headed south for the snow. By the time you caught sight of the tin cowboy, you were over it, literally…

For those who want to know more – we’re still searching for the pre-1991 aerial surveys – the GPS reference for the location of the buried Skoda is [Aus Geo 1984] 55K 0694889 6068431. And yes, the evidence needs further triangulation, but who wants to ruin a good fringe-urban myth? The FJ Holden which now serves as the symbolic “Petrov’s car” is to be found at [Aus Geo 1984] 0694700 6068433. Or see our Google Map here (with thanks to my collaborators-in-procrastination Annie Jay and Pammy Faye, for most of these arcane details).

Question for Ralph Nader: is it possible to roll a Skoda at 25 mph?

Question for local bandits: who stole the front suspension within 24 hours of the crash?

Question for anyone: who would have wanted a Skoda front suspension anyway?

PS Archives ACT October 2009 “Find of the Month”: the Registration Papers for Petrov’s Skoda

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